American Student Finds Family in Morocco on YES Abroad Program

Rozina Kidari is 19-year- old and studying creative writing at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois.

Ever since I was 12 years old, I've had this dream about discovering my ethnic heritage. Growing up with my single American mother in Arizona, I always felt this gap inside of me. It wasn't that I ever lacked love, stability or understanding. It was just that, as I got older, I wanted to understand where I came from.

My mom always taught me to see the beauty and importance in all forms of ethnic diversity, so, by the time I became a teenager, I was dying to know more about my own heritage. Rozina, you're half-Moroccan, I'd tell myself. Your dad was born and raised in a city called Kenitra. You have a grandmother who still lives in the same city.

What do you know about Morocco, I asked myself? It's in Northern Africa-- so it's probably hot there. There is a King -- Mohamed the 5th...or 6th? Moroccans eat couscous. Rabat is the capital. There is something called the Kasbah, right? It is a country governed by Islam -- so do most people completely cover up? I felt like a hypocrite when I would tell people I was Moroccan because I couldn't really explain what that meant or represented for myself.

One day, my mom forwarded me an email about the YES Abroad program, sponsored by the US Department of State. Morocco was one of the three host countries listed. She encouraged me to investigate because of my dreams of travel and my interest in foreign exchange -- our family had hosted many exchange students in the past.

With college just around the corner, I didn't take it too seriously, but I did apply. When I received notification that I was selected as a finalist to study in Rabat, Morocco, I couldn't believe my eyes. Before I could blink, it was September 2, 2009 and I was saying a four-and-a-half-month-long goodbye to my family in the U.S.

The first thing I learned after arriving in Rabat was "cooli!" "Cooli" is the Moroccan word for "eat." At the beginning of my stay, I would sit down to dinner with my host family and my host mom would immediately say, "Prends! Manges! Cooli!" or "Take! Eat! Eat!" First, I tried eating as fast as I could -- but that made my plate endless because each time I would finish something, my host mom would be right there with another dish! I tried eating and chewing slowly. But then my host mom would ask me, "What are you doing? What's wrong?" and throw in "Cooli! Cooli!" a couple more times. It took a long time to find a happy medium.

Another thing I learned was "faire la bise" -- the traditional Moroccan greeting. Instead of shaking hands, Moroccans do a cheek-to-cheek kiss. The standard is one kiss on each side, always starting with right cheek to right cheek and ending with left to left. However, there are variations depending upon how well you know or how close you are with the person. I often found myself ending the faire la bise before the other person was ready or, worse, I would go in for more as they tried (politely) to back away.

Moroccan hospitality is an art that has been practiced and universally recognized for hundreds of years. Never will you feel more welcome than when entering a Moroccan's house, as they spoil you with glass upon glass of hot, delicious tea, dozens of different cookies, and the best of what their home has to offer. And how can I forget the sincere and detailed inquiries about my health and my family? When a Moroccan asks about your family, he doesn't just ask about your Mom and Dad -- he asks about EVERY single person in your family. Yes, even your uncle's cousin's sister's husband. Even him!

I learned a lot about the Moroccan culture and myself as well. After about a month of living in Rabat, my host family helped me to get in contact with my grandmother in Kenitra. Words can't even begin to describe the emotions I was feeling when I opened the door and my grandmother or "muilella" pulled me into her arms and told me that I was a "diamante" or diamond. During my winter break, I got to spend an entire week and half at my grandmother's house where I met aunts, cousins, uncles and everything in between. My sister, Aziza, got the chance to fly out to Morocco during that time as well! We had the chance to connect with our family together, while also discussing our feelings and experiences around it, and that's something I will treasure forever.

My experience in Morocco is a painting that I've permanently etched onto the canvas of my mind. I know that I have experienced something much richer than most people my age could understand. That empty gap in my life is now filled with love, friendships, memories, and a newfound understanding. Morocco truly is my second home. As they say in Morocco, "Barak Allah Fik u Shukran Bezaff!" which means, "It is a blessing from God, and thank you very much!"